Baseball is science. Its field is a laboratory; its players, the subjects, the compounds–volatile or otherwise; its managers, the scientists. There’s history, of course. Just as there is artistry and theatre. But the core of baseball is science.
The anatomy of the game is obvious: Players moving, joints flexing, and muscles muscling. The physics too is all but apparent: Trajectories, angles, and gravity. What’s not seen is perhaps the science that matters most, the science that has been responsible for the Oakland A’s remarkable season: Chemistry
The catalyst has been the man they call “The Mad Scientist.”
In 2004, the Diamondbacks would lose 115 games, while ranking in the bottom five of almost every major statistical measurement known to man. That off-season, the Diamondbacks’ brass would dismantle the team and reassemble it at a savings of over $6 million. They would then hire Bob Melvin to manage.
In Melvin’s first year as manager, he took a poorer Diamondbacks’ squad and coaxed them to 77 wins, a 30 game improvement over the previous season. While the players were different, their abilities were not. The team’s turn around wasn’t so much the result of Melvin’s ability to manage players as much as it was his ability to measure them. Melvin, perhaps unlike any other, is seemingly adept at converting player strengths into that of the team’s, as well as into wins.
“It’s more about me acclimating to the players than the players acclimating to me,” Melvin noted last Friday. “I have to work the personnel that we have in the fashion that we’re best suited to do it.”
It was Melvin’s ability to “work” his personnel that led Diamondbacks’ color commentator to designate him “The Mad Scientist.” It is also the same ability that has turned a young, wide-eyed Athletics team into a real competitor. But, if you ask Melvin, his influence is nothing groundbreaking. “I think based on where we on in the season, we try to keep the distractions to a minimum,” Melvin said. “I know it’s very cliché, but keep all of our efforts and focus on a particular day.”
The “one day at a time” approach isn’t a cliché; it’s a cop out. Show me a team who takes it two days at a time, and I’ll show you Jose Canseco’s Pulitzer. What Melvin has actually done is two-fold: He has excited his team by effectively integrating youth and instilling confidence in young players who would otherwise be consumed by the pressures of the big leagues.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had this much fun playing baseball,” said rookie pitcher A.J. Griffin. “It’s a great team chemistry that we have: Great starting rotation, great lineup. Top to bottom, this team is very strong. We have a lot of fun just playing baseball and trying to put together some W’s.”
The question is how: How does a team in the midst of a playoff race become synonymous with Pie-derman and the “Bernie Lean”? How do the players consistently refer to the clubhouse atmosphere as “loose”? And, how does a 24-year-old pitcher who has been asked to shoulder the burden of the A’s playoff hopes use an adjective like “fun” to describe this season?
Equilibrium comes to mind. Both Griffin and fellow pitcher Brett Anderson used the word “calm” to describe Melvin’s presence in the clubhouse. “He’s just a calming presence,” Anderson said. “He’s really laid back.”
“There’s a lot of confidence that he exudes,” Griffin added. “And it always feels like we’re in the ballgame no matter what the score is. He’s always got the same demeanor.”
That demeanor, in Melvin’s own words, is simple: Positivity. “I like to be a positive guy, especially with the whole group.” Melvin said. “I will take guys individually if there is something I want to do on the negative side. But I think it’s staying consistent—whether you’re winning or losing.”
Positivity can be difficult in a season mired in the negative. The A’s have endured injuries to key contributors, such as Scott Sizemore, Brett Anderson, Dallas Braden, Bartolo Colon, and Brandon McCarthy, as well as seeming losses in their attempt to build a new stadium. The only thing more consistent than Melvin’s positivity is the Athletics’ attendance. On average, the team plays in front of a half-empty O.Co Coliseum—or half-full, if you’re Melvin.
But consistency for Melvin is easy, as it generally is for those who can see the big picture, for those who are the smartest people in the room, or on the diamond.
“Not many managers can out manage him,” former Giants manager Roger Craig told BayAreaSportsGuy.com. “They might beat him sometimes, but he can play the guys that have the best chance to do the job for him.”
Craig was pitching coach for the Nashvile Sounds when he first encountered a young catcher he would affectionately call “Bobby.” What struck Craig about Melvin was not necessarily his physical ability, but his mental prowess.
“Everyday, I had all the pitchers come out early,” Craig recounted of his time in Nashville. “We’d sit in the bleachers our there, and we’d talk baseball, talk pitching. Bobby never missed a meeting. He came the whole time he was there. He was a student of the game.”
After that, Craig and Melvin kept crossing paths. There was that three-year stint in San Francisco, which didn’t work out because, according to Craig, Melvin “never did hit enough to catch regular a whole lot.” Then, more than a decade later, Melvin and Craig would find themselves on Bob Brenly’s staff in Arizona, where they would rekindle that student-teacher relationship from decades before.
“He picked my brain.” Craig recalled of his time in Arizona. “I mean, as soon I got to the ball park at 7 o’clock [or] 8 o’clock in the morning—his locker was right next to mine—we’d talk baseball. We talked about a lot of things he has to do as a bench coach. I said, ‘You’ve got to be two minutes ahead of the manager because you’ve got other things to do.’
“I said, ‘Keep an eye on that scorecard all the game. You keep watching between innings, and somewhere along the lines something will pop out to you.’ The little things like that. He picked it up really good.”
So good, in fact, Melvin transformed a team with the second lowest payroll in baseballs—trailing the San Diego Padres by a little more than $100K—into a team with the fourth-best record. The Mad Scientist has done it with chemistry in every sense of the word: He’s mixed and matched lineups artfully, while managing to sustain a positive clubhouse atmosphere. There is perhaps no better manager in baseball.
Support the A’s and a local charity: Field Level seats to the A’s-Mariners game on Saturday, September 29th can be purchased for only $23. $5 of each ticket sold HERE will benefit the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. There will also be an A’s Silent Auction table behind Section 121. A portion of these proceeds will also be donated to the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.
Special thanks to Adam Loberstein and the Oakland Athletics for hosting the A’s Blog Day. We here at BASG hope to continue working with Adam and the rest of the Athletics’ PR Team to spread the good word of the Oakland A’s.